Another Matrix Reloaded: New Treatment for Damaged Discs

You may have heard the term matrix in a math class. Or perhaps you've watched the popular movie series by the same name. Matrix is a structure or base from which something else can grow. In the body, the matrix is a scaffold that allows cells to fill in and form tissue, such as cartilage.

Chondrocytes are cells in cartilage that help make the matrix in discs between the vertebrae. They can even build the matrix when they are damaged or removed from the body. Perhaps there's a way to use chondrocytes in the discs to help repair damaged discs. That's the focus of this study in dogs.

The researchers removed disc chondrocytes from 18 dogs. The chondrocytes were used to grow more cells for the matrix. These cells were then reinserted into the same dogs. The lab-grown chondrocytes were returned to the same disc 12 weeks later. The disc tissue was analyzed at three, six, nine, and 12 months after the cell transplantation.

The researchers measured many parts of the bone, discs, and matrix. They looked at changes in disc height, density of the matrix, color of the bone and marrow, and presence of fluid or swelling. They found that the longer the cells were present, the more changes could be seen.

For example, it wasn't until 12 months later that an increase in disc height was observed. New growth in the disc was seen by six months and continued to increase after that time. The scientists wondered if these changes were from the transplanted chondrocytes or just the result of the normal healing process. They were able to find proof that the transplanted chondrocytes formed the new matrix.

The authors conclude that removing chondrocytes from discs (even damaged ones) may be a new treatment for disc problems. The cells grow in number in a lab and are later reinserted into the patient's own discs. A new matrix forms similar to normal disc material. This method may be able to keep discs from breaking down and to treat discs already damaged in adults.

Timothy Ganey, PhD, et al. Disc Chondrocyte Transplantation in a Canine Model: A Treatment for Degenerated or Damaged Intervertebral Disc. In Spine. December 1, 2003. Vol. 28. No. 23. Pp. 2609-2620.

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